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by David Pullar

18 Sep 2008

The launch of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in Australia has attracted a little attention—partly for the two substantial $100,000 awards and partly for the fact that the PM himself has final say.

Most people are unconcerned by this role, but Gail Jones in The Guardian finds it troubling:

But should the Australian prime minister have a say in “his” award? Emphatically not. Judging panels are contentious enough without prime-ministerial opinion inflecting adjudication. The winning text risks being seen as content-endorsed, or in some way charged by political approval.

In part this is a hangover from the previous administration, where PM John Howard was something of “culture warrior” and had a tendency to weigh in heavily on art and literature he considered biased to the left.  New PM Kevin Rudd has shown a more hands-off approach.

The bigger question is surely “What do politicians know about books?”  Politicians will occasionally write works of political science and policy—and at the end of their public life will often write scurrilous memoirs—but few engage in serious literature.

There is some hope here in my state of New South Wales, where the new Premier, Nathan Rees, has a degree in literature.  His predecessor was widely seen as a philistine, although the one before that (Bob Carr) was a self-confessed book nut—so much so that he recently wrote a book entirely about reading.  To tell the truth, I’m not sure that the writers of Sydney have really noticed the difference.

But what of the contenders in the current US Presidential campaign?  Barack Obama has written his own memoir and a manifesto of sorts.  John McCain has written a few books about his life.  McCain’s daughter Meghan has written a hagiography of the Republican candidate.  As for Sarah Palin… well, she’s expressed interest in banning a few books in her time.

I’m not sure any of them has much time for contemporary literature.  Maybe Obama does, but you can bet he won’t be discussing the merits of Junot Diaz as he campaigns for the votes of working-class Ohioans.

by Bill Gibron

17 Sep 2008

Survival is instinctual. It goes to our very nature as life loving beings. It can be mistaken for desperation or arrogance, but the need to stay alive usually trumps all other basic necessities. When Hurricane Katrina flared up in the Gulf of Mexico, moving from minor storm to an Armageddon like presence preparing to devastate New Orleans, the rest of America looked on with disdain. From the settled suburbanite to the doofus President they reelected, no one really cared if the levees would hold, if city services would respond, or if anyone was left behind. But for Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott, there was no option. There was no leaving or getting to safer shelter. All they had was themselves, their extended family, and their will to survive. They also had a camcorder.

Trouble the Water, the new documentary from Fahrenheit 9/11 producers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, takes the amazing footage shot by Kim during the Hell on Earth that was Katrina, and after catching up with the couple a few weeks later, follows their attempts to rebuild their lives. They briefly return to New Orleans, only to find homes containing corpses that the National Guard has failed to ID and tag. They talk about their attempts to seek refuge in a nearly empty Naval base, only to be turned away by the officers on duty (Bush later gives them a commendation for this). But mostly, they seek out the solace of friends and family, trying to make sense of a situation that saw them struggling one day, completely divested of the standards of human existence the next.

Thanks to the sensational material shot by the Roberts (Kim is quite the self-promoter, seeing herself as a future Ms. Rap Supreme) and the juxtaposition of the now familiar flailing that was the Federal response to the disaster, Trouble becomes an unlikely cinematic ally to Spike Lee’s near definitive When the Levees Broke. Unlike said four hour epic, however, this movie wants to shrink the story down to its most elemental aspects. It was people, not generic populations that were uprooted when a poorly designed infrastructure failed New Orleans. We get to meet the heroes and unintentional villains, the destitute and the resolute, each group groping for a way to endure the wrath of a blind Mother Nature and a disinterested nation.

This theme runs throughout Trouble. The Roberts, after being rejected by the Navy, end up at a local high school. Coming back to it later, the soldiers stationed there jokingly complain about the hygiene and cleanliness of their “guest” refugees. As our lead couple and their traveling companion Brian thank the military for their presence and assistance, you can see that lack of caring in the officer’s eyes. When they finally travel up North, they find limited opportunities (and even less cooperation from FEMA). Even in Memphis, the place where they intend to “start fresh”, they appear lost. It’s not because they don’t want to make it. But after a previous stint as admitted drug dealers - Kim delivers a devastating rap on the subject towards the end of the film - their fringe lifestyle hasn’t prepared them for such a seismic shift.

That’s why we aren’t surprised by what happens next. All throughout Trouble, we hear the survivors vehemently stating their hatred for New Orleans, the various officials involved in the Katrina debacle, and their desire never to return. So of course, Kim and Scott are back, looking over their lost neighborhood while celebrating the fact that many of their friends have also had a change of heart. It doesn’t make the devastation any easier, and when Scott suddenly finds himself employed and happy, we wonder what will happen next. Oddly enough, Trouble the Water decides not to pursue such a path. Instead, it wants to be the reality version of those “found footage” films where events are seen through the lens of an actual participant ala The Blair Witch Project/Cloverfield.

More importantly, the decision by Lessin and Deal to dump their previous Katrina concept to attach themselves to the Roberts resonates with the authenticity of the subject they were facing. Trouble is at its least effective when newscasts show Bush pandering to the base or former FEMA failure Michael Brown choking on administration addled soundbites. By picking up on this personal story and serving it up in a way that plays commentator, not critic, the filmmakers allows Kim and Scott to speak for themselves. The results are astoundingly brutal and beautifully honest. As a culture, the African American community in the United States (horribly marginalized up until a mere four decades ago, in case you’ve forgotten) has carved out a means of making connections that their Caucasian counterparts can’t even begin to claim. Homeless and haggard, the Roberts consistently find as much Christian charity as they gave to those who needed it.

Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of this superbly realized and heartbreaking film - that people will pull together to help each other even if there are issues between them. Scott suggests that Brian (who we learn is an ex-addict living in a halfway house before Katrina) is now his brother. Another man who made it his cause to carry complete strangers to higher ground on a floating exercise bag gets labeled a ‘hero’. Both descriptions are dead on. Through the eyes of these people who had nothing to start with, who struggled to make a place in a country who still consider them second class citizens, the truth is instantly revealed. Enemies become allies. The generous become the stuff of myth.

Had this story been told through some manner of reenactment (or, God forbid, a hackneyed Hollywood depiction), had we not been able to see the rising waters washing away everything the Roberts owned with our own eyes (the sight of their second story bedroom filled with flooding remains unsettling), we’d never have believed the events depicted in Trouble the Water. In fact, most of America would like to think that Katrina is a cause long battled and conquered. Naturally, nothing could be further from the truth. One imagines as Bush and his lame duck cronies make sure everything in Texas is post-Ike A-OK that the people of New Orleans are still smarting. Where there are people like the Roberts, however, there remains hope. That’s the essence of survival. It’s the instinct of all human beings.

by Bill Gibron

16 Sep 2008

A daredevil, by definition, defies death. He cheats the Grim Reaper at his own particular brand of bluffing. This also means, by reciprocal inference, he or she embraces life. Granted, it does appear to be a contradictory condition. By pushing the very limits of existence to the points where you could end it, one looks to be laughing in the face of mortality. It’s seem the very definition of a fool’s paradise. By his very giddiness alone, wire walker Phillipe Petit would be the perfect illustration of this ideal. He sees nothing wrong with finding a location, stringing up a line, and doing his risky, refined dance with destiny. And he worships the moment as he does it.

As the subject of James Marsh’s brilliant documentary Man on Wire, Petit proves that there can be joy in doing what others would consider to be insane. Less of a career overview and more a concentration on a single segment of the performer’s otherwise complicated madman modus, the main event here is the 1974 high wire walk between the then incomplete Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Reflecting a simpler time when almost anyone could infiltrate a major structure and display their Depression era hyperbole, Petit comes across as part shaman, part sham, all ego and even more enthusiasm.

Beginning in the streets of Paris as a clown, our hero first feels the flush of unusual fame when, using his circus skills, he walks across the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral. Soon, he is down in Australia, doing something similar to a bridge in Sydney. By accident, he reads an article on the soon to be built World Trade Center, and immediately, the structure is all Petit can think about. He obsesses on it, drawing in a ragtag group of friends, conspirators, and well wishers in an attempt to realize his goal. During these sections March introduces our aging rogue’s gallery in a rather unique way. Each one gets their say, while a starkly lit portrait fills the frame. Soon, we see that there is a dual purpose to this posing. Some of his confidants are quite capable of helping. Others freeze in the face of potential dangers - like death, the law, etc. It’s like looking at a cast of players plucked from an asylum. 

In fact, Man on Wire is less about the climatic walk (which we know will happen, since there is a movie being made about the event and the individual who accomplished it) and more about the intricate preparations and personal dilemmas everyone faced. Sure, there is some cloak and dagger as the crew runs into security just hours before the event. Equally thrilling is a sequence where a simple wire pull maneuver goes wrong, and ends up taking hours, the weight of the material making inch by inch progress almost impossible. Marsh does manufacture the necessary suspense, all leading to the stunning images of Petit suspended above Manhattan, his lithe body literally dividing the skyline in half. Oddly enough, there is very little moving footage of the event. We get to see actual scenes of Petit crossing Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. For the Twin Towers, however, it’s mostly still photography.

This doesn’t lessen the act’s impact though. Man on Wire makes the wise decision to not follow Petit’s other stunts (including walks involving the Louisiana Superdome and The Eiffel Tower). Indeed, the use of the now destroyed World Trade Center resonates in a way that makes anything else he’s done seem minor in scale or import. You can tell that Petit feels the same way. His face practically glows as he recalls the moment he left the safety of the building’s rooftop. There is so much happiness in his cherubic look that you can’t help but get caught up in the emotion. Petit may now be viewed as kind of an incomplete saint, but when laying on his back high above the street, balanced perfectly on the line, an anxious audience of New Yorker’s marveling at his chutzpah, all flaws easily fall away.

If there is a single missing element here, a minor moment that cries out from its MIA status, it’s a mention of the fact that Petit’s dream no longer exists. One can’t imagine that Marsh didn’t broach the subject of the 9/11 attacks with the artist, hoping to gain some manner of insight as to how he reacted to the sight of his biggest triumph tragically crumbling before his eyes. Maybe such a reaction is implicit in everything he says up to this point, but hearing (or just seeing) Petit’s take would be wonderful. Of course, the entire movie is practically a love letter to what the World Trade Center represented. Turns out, Marsh felt the beauty of what Petit did was so substantial that discussing the fall of the Towers would, in his mind, undermine its mythos. He’s probably right. 

Frankly, such closure isn’t necessary. What we see in Petit, unlike the current crop of Mindfreaks, and Blaine-worthy conmen is someone who can actually capture magic in a moment. Without optical illusion, camera trickery, or media-aided bait and switch, this was a man who figured out how to string a cable between the two largest buildings in the world (at the time) and then step into said void. There was no publicity, no pay per view showboating. No netting or safety harnesses. Sure, Petit expected some response, but this act was not done to derive some manner of commercial or financial benefit. Instead, the wire walk remains the ultimate answer to the question “why”, the quandary anyone who teases death must deal with and defend. 

And we are lucky enough to experience the explanation in all its vertigo inducing glory. Make no mistake about it - Petit’s accomplishment was so stunning at the time that even the police officers sent in to arrest him respond in awe-struck wonder over what they’re witnessing. It’s a reaction shared by the audience. No matter his impish charms, his naïve belief in the pureness of his motives, Petit maintains his bi-furcated façade. You’ll either love him or dislike him, but you can’t deny his moxie.

At one point, New York had a pair of concrete and steel monoliths that few outside the city thought much of. In fact, even the local citizenry thought they were an ugly eyesore. With a single act of death defiance, Petit put the World Trade Center on the map. He also endeared its image to a country who, as usual, wouldn’t recognize what they had until it was gone. While the Towers have fallen, Petit’s achievement lingers. Thankfully.

by Chris Catania

16 Sep 2008

Landing in Chicago for his debut U.S. performance, Japanese singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru started the Saturday night show at the Empty Bottle before a sold out crowd deploying an acoustic version of “Parachute,” a song busting at the seams with blissful sunshine and a perfect lead single from Exithis third album and the first to be released stateside.

He bows humbly, sits down and wastes no time going right into a furious mix of arpeggio pop and classic jazz fingerings with beaming with Beatle flavors. But it’s all Tokumaru in the interpretation as he stops and starts the chord progressions on his own terms, swiftly with playful agility and pure ease, sending the crowd into a hush of awe.

Tokumaru albums are one man bedroom symphonies created and produced on computer in his bedroom as he plays fifty plus instruments on Exit’s ten tracks, blending electronic, folk, blues and Japanese pop into a dreamy transcendence that melts the language barrier to almost nothing, leaving only the sweet melodies of Tokumaru’s gentle emotive croon to tie the finally knot firmly around your heart. 

Sometimes he plays with band but tonight it’s just him and his guitar, a different listening experience that what you hear on Exit but just as engaging if not more as his fingers fly across the frets, as he sings of abstract thoughts mined from his dream diary.   

Though his 11pm set ended way too soon, I did have a chance to sit down with him afterwards, as Saturday night ticked away and Sunday morning rolled in.

In the Empty Bottle’s musty basement green room and its graffiti spattered walls as our backdrop—and with a bit of translation help from his manager Koki Yahata—Tokumaru revealed the details behind dream diary inspired songwriting, his jazz influenced trip to the US a few years ago, and why, though he’s happy to play live, he still doesn’t want to have his parents come to his shows.

This being your first time playing in the US, what are your thoughts so far?
It was raining a lot in Japan when I left I was expecting some change in weather but it hasn’t really changed at all. [chuckles] so I guess it’s kind of disappointing [chuckles].

Normally it pretty nice this time of year but with Hurricane Ike we got tons of rain the last few days. How did you feel during the show?
The reaction from the crowd was better than I expected. I was very happy with the response.

So after your first US show how would you compare playing before a Japanese audience versus a US audience?
In Japan people usually come to the show to hear the music and concentrate on the performance, so comparing with the bar being so close to the stage, it was loud in the back and it was difficult to play by myself on stage.

You did do a great job of overcoming the crowd chatter, though. When I see that happen I often wonder what people could be possibly talking about while the show’s going on and they apparently paid money for the show.
But I was very happy with the large part of the crowd who was enjoying the performance.

You play a lot of different instruments on the album. How do you decide what and how the songs get played live?
When I started making music or even playing the songs from Exit, I had no intention of playing them live on stage in front of an audience.

Your performance tonight was very different from what first time listeners would hear on the album or vice versa. Seeing your play your guitar is just as fun as it is to listen to the album. Is that intentional? Because it seems that fans would be in for a surpris whether they first hear you at a concert or on record.
Yes. And when I play other shows I sometimes play with other band members but tonight it was just me and my guitar. But it is almost impossible to recreate what I do on album, so I won’t usually recreate the whole album on stage and just sound simpler and I try to find a way to present the songs.

You had a stay in Los Angeles from 1999-2001 learning jazz and it was obvious that you’ve melded that with other guitar styles to create your own style.
I didn’t have any intention of going to Japanese college so I tried something else before I had to start working at a regular job in Japan. I really had nothing else to do so I started studying jazz [chuckles].

Tell me about your dream diary.  Your lyrics are all sung in Japanese but the way your melodies are sung the language barrier is almost eliminated.
I don’t think that much about how to write lyrics form the dream diary, but I have been writing my dream dairy since my childhood and it was a very natural thing for me. Then when I was a teenager I started making music, and I looked back at what I wrote and took some hints from the pages to begin making the music. 

So first came the dream dairy, then the music and then at some point you came across the Beatles…
[playfully chuckles] Yes.

They have a significant influence on your music. Was there a specific song or album that had the biggest impact on you?
There’s not a certain song, necessarily, but because I have been listening to them since I was kid, there are certain melodies and chord progressions that unconsciously influence me and it certainly shows up in my music.

I can see the influence but you’ve certainly made it your own.  What is it like for you when you recording the albums in your bedroom?  Are you surrounded by the instruments?
I am always surrounded by a lot of different instruments. So I can start recording them at any moment. My writing process is more like making a song up in my mind, like an image of the song, and once it is completed in my mind, then I begin recording it.

So you see the song first in your mind? Do you see the song and notes in colors like Jimi Hendrix allegedly saw music?
Yes, very similar.

What is inspiring you to make your music?
I don’t really like the lyrics to have a certain meaning. I don’t want a song to mean something specific. I try to stay away from that and that’s why I go to my dream dairy for inspiration. I always want to create something that I haven’t heard before or would like to hear by myself.

Is the dream diary something literal as if you write down songs the morning after they come to you in a dream or are the songs pulled from journal entries you’ve written years ago?
It depends. Each song is created differently from the dream dairy and it doesn’t happen the same way each time. Usually I don’t rend to turn a dream into music right away. Because when an idea of a song is half created in my head and I take an instrument right away it will be very different from what I want to make in the end, so I almost intently stay away from an idea until it is fully developed in my mind.

Do you play your music for friends before you record it?
I know exactly how I want to make it the way I want. I like to hear responses, but I generally know what I want when I hear it.

If you had a choice would you rather play live or only record in your bedroom?
Well,…basically…I like to stay at home [chuckles] and I wish I could play at home without having to travel.

Maybe you could just hook up a live feed into your bedroom…
[laughs]

So how did they get you out of your bedroom and out on the road? Did they have to drag you out kicking and screaming?
[chuckles] I don’t really know it happened…

I hope nobody drugged you or hit your over the head…so did you then all of a sudden find yourself on the Empty Bottle stage, asking yourself ‘how did I get here?’
[laughs]

Well, I’m really glad you did come out of your room, however it happened.
I am too, and the experience of playing live show in the states is not that far from what I expected. I’ve toured Europe before, and so far, it’s very similar.

Playing live is very different than you playing in your bedroom. So who was the first person to hear your music when you first began to create it as a teenager?

Various people who were beside me, friend and original members of my first band Gellers. I was in that band with a childhood friend and it was my friend who also did the cover art for Exit and he was a friend since Kindergarten.

How did he create the artwork?
He had a good idea of what he wanted to do since he was someone who first heard my music and he had also done some of my demo CD artwork.

Do your parents play music or support your music?
[emphatically shakes head and waves arms] No.

So you’re going against some family grain and taking some big risks. Do they come to your shows?
No. it’s not their fault because I asked them not to come.

Why?
It’s very embarrassing to have them in the audience and see me live on stage.

Because of the things you’re signing about?
[chuckles] …it just very personal for me…

Do you have brothers or sisters…?
Yes.

Do they come to your shows?
Yes, once or twice.

So do you invite them or tell them to stay away and they come anyway?
[laughs] no, they come to shows when they can. Either way, I’m really happy that I’m been able to do what I love to do which is make music, and I would love to go to other places to make music.

by tjmHolden

16 Sep 2008

For the earliest peripatetics who toured America—say, a visitor such as Alexis de Tocqueville—politics was one of the greatest fascinations about the nascent nation. Not only because it was ubiquitous—with its fingerprints smudged over nearly every aspect of public life—but because politics served as both magnet and outlet for the robust, often uncontainable energies of the American people. In the French analyst’s words:

No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you find yourself in a sort of tumult . . .  A confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once, each expressing some social requirements . . . All around you everything is on the move . . . (with associations of every stripe) commercial . . . industrial . . . religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.

Nearly two centuries later, and despite a complex social history of ever and greater privatization of the public sphere, the cacophony and tumult of the political in American life is no less true. A contemporary visitor can not help but notice, with a current presidential race now heading into its home stretch. What de Tocqueville marveled was a quadrennial “revolution ... in the name of the law” will, come November 4, be upon Americans once more.

And, in the run-up to November 4, Americans have witnessed nothing short of that which de Tocqueville did, back in 1832:

Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest, and one might say the only, affair occupying men’s minds . . . As the election draws near, intrigues grow more active and agitation is more lively and widespread. The citizens divide up into several camps . . . The whole nation gets into a feverish state . . .

In short, they go gaga over the spontaneous, the conflagratory, the manufactured invention and intrigue that has been . . . the unveiling of Sarah Palin.

Or, by other lights: life stranger than fiction.

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